Playing Telephone with Your Bottom Line

Do you remember playing a game called “Telephone” in grade school? If you never played, let me explain the game to you.

The teacher would start by asking her students to line up, side by side, in a straight line. She would approach the first person in line and tell them to listen carefully to a sentence that she was about to whisper in their ear. After whispering the sentence into the student’s ear, they turned and whisper the same sentence into the ear of the person next to them.

When the last student received the whispered message the teacher asked them to speak the sentence out loud. The outcome was always the same, the original whispered sentence was completely changed to the point that it no longer even closely resembled the original sentence. Of course the class would always laugh but the message was delivered loud and clear. How quickly something can change if you don’t understand what is being said.

In many businesses today we have the dangerous game of telephone being played out over and over again. The sentence that is being whispered is a simple one. In every job description there is one line that appears after the list of skills required to perform the job.

The sentence that is being misinterpreted is “…and other duties as assigned”. Do you know why that statement appears in most job descriptions?

The origin was a legal one. When drafting a job description it is virtually impossible to think of every possible duty that should be included in that job description. While the majority of the tasks are generally listed, the catch all phrase was added if element was forgotten. It was a sound move from a legal and risk management focus to include that statement.

Just as in the game of telephone, over time, the phrase has taken a wrong, dark turn. “Other duties as assigned” has been reinterpreted, by most employers, to mean…I can take any job description that has that sentence in it and add as many other duties as I need to meet my efficiency and operational dictates.

This includes taking bits and pieces of eliminated job descriptions to scatter on top of existing employee duties. Employers have come to believe that it is permissible because it comes under the old familiar phrase, “and other duties as assigned”.

Unfortunately, the outcome is not as humorous as in grade school. When a prospective employee applies for a job, the details of the job fall within their interests and abilities. That is generally what attracted them to the job. While performing that job, they bring their personal strengths into play to add dimension, depth and creativity to the position. Their focus and execution of their job duties lifts up your brand and customers will do business over and over again with a company that delivers better than average service. It does not have to be superior effort but just better than average.

Unfortunately, when other unrelated duties are assigned, job performance may change so dramatically that it will likely impact service levels. Because your employee can no longer adequately perform their new job requirements, their level of engagement diminishes. When engagement diminishes, spirit, creativity and service levels diminish. It is not about adding hours to the day to complete all the tasks either. If long hours are a mainstay of your business model you are likely to have bottom line issues. Either you are continuously losing good employees and/or your bottom line is taking a hit some place. Here is an example of what the abuse of “other duties as assigned” looks like in action.

You own a small cafe and were lucky to find a brilliant young chef to cook for you. He is a master of culinary imagination, creating beautiful dishes full of flavor and taste. His job description is that of a chef. He is to create menus, run a kitchen and cook delicious dishes to please your guests.

Your cafe is doing well, your reviews are stellar and your chef’s reputation is drawing repeat customers who are bringing friends. Because you have struggled to find the right person to run your front of the house, you decide just eliminate the position and divide the duties between the wait staff, receptionists and your chef.

You explain to everyone that the extra duties are part of the “ and other duties as assigned” and you think you have made a brilliant business decision. The problem is you have added duties that they are not in alignment with your employee’s strengths and skill sets.

What is the likely outcome? The chef has less time to be creative and it is reflected in his work. The receptionists have less time to connect with your customers and the wait staff has no time to deliver the extra service levels that your cafe has become known for. Suddenly, reservations drop off and your bottom line is impacted. Your happy customers are drifting away along with their friends. Suddenly your business decision is not so brilliant.

To insulate your bottom line you need three things. First, you need a dedicated group of repeat customers who sing the praises of your business to anyone who will listen. They call this choral group… “Broadcast Customers” and no amount of internal marketing initiatives can surpass their efforts.

Second, you need your products and service delivered by happy and engaged employees, not employees who are burned out and disengaged because they can’t adequately perform their job duties due to increased and unrelated job demands. When products and services are delivered by happy and engaged employees, the larger you will grow your pool of happy, broadcast customers.

Third, you need to be an employer who believes in a strengths based workforce. Practice hiring employees who perform specific job functions in alignment with their skills and abilities. When you change a job, you need to find a way to realign the new duties to their skill sets. As organizations change, a good employee will adapt their skill set to the changes unless the duties are completely unrelated and disjointed.

Small changes in corporate attitude can yield lasting and profitable success. Especially if you stop playing the dangerous game of telephone.

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